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Tag: Andrew McCraw

Black Collar Crime: First Baptist Church of Columbia Accused of Covering Up Sex Crimes

wendell estep

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

A lawsuit was filed this week against First Baptist Church of Columbia, South, Carolina, alleging that church leaders, including its pastor Wendell Estep,  covered up sex crimes.

John Monk, a reporter for The State, writes:

A Richland County lawsuit quotes numerous sexually explicit text messages that a First Baptist Church youth worker allegedly sent to a boy in a church program, adding church officials did little or nothing for years while the worker sexually abused the youth.

That inaction is part of the downtown Columbia church’s history of failing to take action against potential molesters, the lawsuit alleges. The boy, now 17, was about 11 when the abuse began, according to the lawsuit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court this week.

Because of the assaults and touching, the youth suffered personal injury and “severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit alleges, asking for a minimum of $150,000 in damages.

To expose the church’s alleged pattern of concealing abuse, the lawsuit also seeks a court order to unseal three sealed civil lawsuits against First Baptist and an ex-deacon, John Hubner, a convicted child sex abuser. Hubner, 69, was convicted in 2002 in Richland County for lewd acts on a child at First Baptist and now is serving a 36-year sentence.

In response to questions from The State about the lawsuit, First Baptist released a statement Friday.

“Last fall, First Baptist Church became aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an unpaid volunteer in the student ministries department,” said the statement by R. Bryan Barnes, a First Baptist member and Columbia lawyer.

“As church policy dictates, the appropriate committee investigated. The committee concluded the volunteer violated church policies. Disciplinary action was taken. The volunteer no longer attends First Baptist Church and was prohibited from further contact with our students. … Church lawyers advise against further public comment at this time.”

The statement did not address the lawsuit’s allegations that First Baptist has covered up instances of sexual abuse or whether the church had contacted law enforcement about the misconduct alleged, as required by state law.

Peter Farr, an attorney for the church, said Friday those and other issues will be addressed at the proper time, in the proper forum, as the legal action continues.

Founded in 1809, First Baptist Church is one of the Columbia area’s biggest, most respected and oldest churches. It has some 7,000 members, and its $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary occupies a city block in downtown Columbia.

The church’s pastor, Wendell Estep, 74, has led First Baptist for 31 years. He recently announced his retirement as of next year.

Estep is a named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with First Baptist Church, Philip Turner and Andrew McCraw. The lawsuit identifies Turner as First Baptist’s staff student minister and McCraw as “a youth assistant mentor and assistant small group leader in First Baptist’s youth group.”

A church spokesman said none of the individuals named in the lawsuit would comment.

The suit was brought by a minor child, identified by the pseudonym Joel Doe, and his parents, Jane Doe and John Doe. The identity of minors in sex cases is confidential.

According to the lawsuit, “Joel Doe” began attending First Baptist while in elementary school. At age 11, he began participating in a Sunday evening youth program, designed “to create a safe environment for children to discuss various religious topics with each other and various young adult mentors,” the lawsuit says.

McCraw was assigned to be “Joel Doe’s” youth mentor and began to invite the youth to movies and dinner, and to sleep over at his house with no other “adults or youth members present,” the lawsuit says.

McCraw also began to send “Joel Doe” text messages, sometimes dozens a day, that were “sexually motivated, inappropriate and illegal,” said the lawsuit, which quotes 17 texts between July 29 and Aug. 16 of 2016.

McCraw also sent nude photos of himself to “Joel Doe,” inappropriately touched the youth while on First Baptist’s property, and “proclaimed his love” for the youth, according to the lawsuit.

During this time, First Baptist officials should have known McCraw was spending “inordinate amounts of unsupervised time with “Joel Doe,” the lawsuit says, adding church official Turner had reprimanded McCraw for having children at his house with no other adults present.

After being told of McCraw’s activities, church officials did not report them to law enforcement “despite having a statutory duty to do so” under the Child Abuse Victims’ Rights Act, the lawsuit alleges.

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Over the years, First Baptist and Estep have fostered “a culture of secrecy that encouraged their employees … to shield individuals” who prey on children, the lawsuit says. The church had an incentive to promote itself as a safe place because it depends “on the financial contributions of parishioners,” the lawsuit said.

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On February 6, 2018, The Daily Caller reported that First Baptist Church agreed to issue an apology, admit liability, and pay $300,000 to the plaintiff:

A Baptist church in South Carolina settled a child sexual abuse lawsuit, agreeing to issue an apology, admit liability, and to pay $300,000 to the plaintiff.

Bryan Barnes, spokesman for First Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., said that church leadership issued the apology and explained the terms of the settlement before the congregation on Sunday, according to the Baptist Press. The case involved a boy identified only as “Joel Doe” who alleged that Andrew McCraw, a volunteer in the church’s youth ministry, engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with him when he was between the ages of 11 and 16.

“Today, we want to offer an apology for the inappropriate and unacceptable conduct this young man endured and express regret for what we failed to do to prevent it,” church leaders said, according to the outlet.

“No student should have to experience what this young man endured,” the church’s statement added.

Doe filed the lawsuit in October 2017 through his parents against First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Wendell Estep, and McCraw. The lawsuit alleged that McCraw initiated a relationship with Doe as a young adult mentor in a church youth program, but the relationship progressed in intimacy to inappropriate touching and sleepovers at McCraw’s house with no other adults or youths present.

The lawsuit also lists several sexually explicit text messages that McCraw sent to the boy, such as “Be there in 10. Have the lube ready,” and “Hey, anything to get that *** in a swimsuit.” Doe and his parents alleged that McCraw sometimes sent dozens of such messages to him a day.

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Church leadership initially issued a rebuttal against specific allegations within the lawsuit. Church leadership contested the claims they knew about the relationship between Doe and McCraw before law enforcement started investigating McCraw.

They also contested that they knew McCraw spent time alone with the youth away from church property, and that the case was part of a church conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse. The case was one facet of a cover-up conspiracy, the lawsuit alleged, related to former First Baptist deacon John Hubner, who in 2002 was sentenced to 36 years in prison for sexually abusing an underage girl.

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Doe and his parents subsequently amended their lawsuit with added allegations that the church chose not to report McCraw to the police to avoid a public scandal and that they failed to notify the next church in which he served of his sexually predatory behavior.

The church has now, according to the terms of the settlement, accepted responsibility for the entire situation, and stated that even though they “had strong policies in place” and subjected McCraw to a background check before allowing him to serve. Leadership said they will reevaluate their youth protection policies and strengthen them where necessary, especially with regard to adults texting church youths.

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Bruce Gerencser